Feature

Twisted

March 2007

Josh Blue has cerebral palsy. It’s okay to laugh at him. Everyone else in America does.

Shoppers inside the suburban mall could not believe they were witnessing such cruelty. Mouths agape, clutching their bags and their collective breath, they watched as a Latino teen hurried through the crowd, avoiding, but laughing at, all could plainly see, two physically disabled kids: one hobbling along on forearm crutches, the other frantically limping and waving his contorted right arm. As if speaking caused him pain, the boy on the crutches grunted, “Hector. Yooou. Are. A. Terrr-i-ble. Caregiver.” The boy with the corkscrewed arm unleashed an Elephant Man-like moan, and pleaded, “Hector. Pleeease. Don’t. Leave. Us. Heeeere.”

Last August, a decade or so after that shopping-mall spectacle, a 27-year-old dude from Denver limped onto the spotlighted stage of the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California, waving his twisted right arm at television cameras and an audience of some 3,000 people, who greeted him with a standing ovation. Josh Blue was on prime-time, about to perform on NBC’s Last Comic Standing—the comedy-world equivalent of American Idol. Every Tuesday night for the previous 12 weeks, Blue and the rest of the show’s comedian-competitors had done “time” on stage, with judges and TV viewers voting a smaller and smaller pool of contestants on to the next week. Now, it was the season finale, the face-off of the two funniest. Second place would get zilch, while the last comic standing would walk off with a half-hour stand-up show on NBC’s Bravo network and, better yet, comedy’s Holy Grail: a development deal with the NBC network itself—the chance to become the next Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, George Lopez, or Ray Romano.

Each of the previous winners of Last Comic Standing had had a shtick. Season one’s Dat Phan won by tapping his Vietnamese culture. John Heffron won season two by emulating the neurotic everyman. Alonzo Bodden, season three’s titleholder, riffed about being a tall black man in a suburban white world. While they’d joked audiences down familiar paths, Blue was unlike anything America had ever seen: Just when it was starting to look like there were no sacred cows left for comedians to tip, along came this character from Denver cracking wise about what it’s like to live with the physical disability of cerebral palsy.

On the stage for that finale performance, Blue began not so much by telling a joke but by thinking out loud, shouting, “What have I done?” What Blue had done on the show up until now was prove, as they say in the funny business, that he can “kill.” He’d made the millions of Americans watching at home laugh their asses off, with bits like the one he used to kick off tonight’s routine: “My mom is an awesome person,” he said, speaking slowly and with a subtle slur, pacing the stage like his idol, Chris Rock. “She is the only person in the world who can tell when I’m drunk. She’s like, ‘Josh are you walking straighter? I heard you come home, put the key right in the door. Annnnnd you’re naked.’” However, Blue had also done something else on Last Comic Standing—something serious, and even profound.

Back at the mall a decade ago, the whole scene with Blue chasing that Hector kid—well, Blue and his pal on the crutches, Nick Wilkie, were good friends with Hector Cabellero. They’d all gone to the mall in Hector’s Camaro. But Hector had done something to tick them off; for a little friendly payback Blue and Wilkie, who also has cerebral palsy, decided to ham up the CP thing and publicly mortify Hector. So Blue exaggerated his limp, flailed his arm, and generally behaved as if he were the village idiot. Acting according to the public’s common misconception of the physically disabled, he seized on the stereotype and from it drew a comedic power. And that’s what he had done on Last Comic Standing; only he’d let the audience in on the joke, gotten them to laugh at him, but also at themselves, at their own ignorance. He’d killed, and he’d begun to change the way people think.

And he won. Joined on stage by his parents and girlfriend, streamers and confetti raining from the ceiling, Blue had a smile plastered on his face and ecstasy in his eyes. He had every reason to believe that, at last, his disability would no longer be a disadvantage. Then again, what did Josh Blue know about Hollywood?

Ever since his Last Comic Standing victory, Blue has spent little time at his home in Denver. He’s been in high demand on the road, with appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Live with Regis and Kelly, and that’s on top of his breathless stand-up tour. During this two-week stretch in late September, Blue’s got 13 gigs in eight cities, as far apart as Chicago and Austin, including the performance he put on tonight at New York City’s Comix. “Before Last Comic Standing my schedule was pretty intense,” he tells me, as we walk the few blocks from Comix to his hotel. “But nothing like this. The amazing part is I go to these places and there are tons of people there to see me, but I can see why [performers] burn out.”

It’s a warm Thursday night, and around us the Meatpacking District is bustling with Clubland hipsters. Every few feet, that techno-thump sound emanates from another velvet-roped-off hotspot. Meanwhile, here’s Blue, clad like a Peanuts character in shorts, running shoes, and a short-sleeve, green-and-yellow striped shirt. A Billy-goat beard adorns the chin of his youthful face. And his wild mane of curly blond hair—sort of Albert Einstein meets the Heat Miser—is pulled off his mug by a thin headband. Looping down the sidewalk, his right arm trailing him, Blue could be mistaken for an upstate college kid who’s lost in the big city after one too many tequila shots.

No one is more aware of Blue’s incongruity in the universe than Blue himself. Almost all of his jokes are rooted in his surreal life. One of his favorites, a bit that employs his signature three-punch-line device, goes: “I was walking downtown and the drunk-tank stopped and picked me up. I was like, uh-oh. [Laugh #1.] I was like, ‘Wait a minute fellas, there’s a misunderstanding, I’m not drunk, I have cerebral palsy.’ They’re like, ‘That’s a pretty big word for a drunk ass.’ [Laugh #2.]. I was in there for seven days. They’re like, ‘Damn, buddy, what did you drink?’” [Laugh #3.] Blue’s hotel room is littered with empty water bottles and clothes. Among the clutter, on top of the mini-fridge, there’s a script. Blue explains that it’s for the NBC show ER. He’s got a meeting tomorrow morning with one of the show’s casting directors. The part would be small, but, he’s been told, there’s a chance it could turn into a recurring role. Blue hasn’t yet looked at the script, let alone memorized his lines. “I’m not really into it,” he says, mentioning, almost under his breath, that they want someone to play a disabled clerk.

Hit show, shit show—in this case it makes no difference to Blue. Why, after having just shown America that he’s so much more than meets the eye, would he want to play someone whose chief characteristic is a physical disability? If ER’s people were looking for a mischievously funny orderly—someone to service nurses in the supply closet and fill the IVs with vodka—that’d be another story. What Blue is most excited about are the development possibilities with NBC. “I’ve got this great idea I want to pitch them,” he says, clearly dying to talk about it.

Tentatively titled The Josh Blue Show, it wouldn’t be the sitcom route you’d expect; rather he’s got his mind on reality TV. One week, Blue would be cooking with, say, the Iron Chef; the next week, maybe he’d go hang gliding. “Who doesn’t want to see a guy with cerebral palsy swinging a meat cleaver, making a fancy meal, or jumping off a cliff,” he says. “But the thing is, what [the viewers] see is comedy, but also [that] a guy with CP can do all this stuff.”

The Josh Blue Show would be a logical extension of its creator’s stand-up: He’d kill, and he’d be changing the way people think. Blue’s scheduled to meet with the NBC suits in a few weeks out in L.A. Given the reality-series craze and a need for program diversity—not to mention his established popularity with prime-time viewers—Blue thinks his pitch has a real chance.

That night in New York, as we walked toward Blue’s hotel, a short woman stopped on the sidewalk in front him. “I know you,” she said. “You’re the, um...You’re the…” Blue waited patiently for the woman’s brain to catch up with her mouth. A guy with CP knows what that’s like. Practically bouncing on her feet, she said, “You’re the one who just won that funniest motherfucker in the universe contest.”

It makes perfect sense that Blue has become a nationally recognized funny mutha. Never mind the material that comes from living with cerebral palsy; Blue had his eccentric supportive family, the home that was like an international hostel, and a college experience lacking curriculum and fueled by bong hits. Even his birth was unusual: What American white boy is born in the African hinterlands?

Blue’s parents met when his father, Walt, was in graduate school at Yale and his mom, Jacqui, was working at a daycare center. In the late ’70s Walt, an adventurous bohemian, took a leave of absence from the Minnesota college where he’d been a French professor to teach English in Cameroon. It was there, in 1978, that Josh, the youngest of the Blues’ four children, was born at the mission hospital. Walt likes to say that the operating-room instruments included a fly swatter.

The Blues recognized almost immediately that Josh was “delayed physically,” Jacqui says. “But there wasn’t anything we could really do about it other than just treat him like a regular person, which we did.” Blue was about 13 months old when the family moved back to Minnesota and he was formally diagnosed with cerebral palsy. CP is caused by brain damage that often occurs during fetal development, but sometimes during or soon after birth. The condition affects muscle development, posture, and coordination. According to studies, more than 500,000 Americans suffer from the disability. Blue is among the 10 percent to 20 percent of those people with the type called “Athetoid” or “dyskinetic.” Symptoms of Athetoid cerebral palsy are uncontrolled muscle writhing in the limbs, face and tongue; the muscle spasms tend to become more intense in stressful situations and subside, sometimes entirely, when sleeping.

There was no hand-wringing over Blue’s diagnosis. Josh was not suffering any mental or emotional disability. As far as Walt and Jacqui were concerned, he was simply unique physically—and who’s not? The fact that Josh talked slower and moved differently wasn’t a big deal. With a Ph.D. in French and fluency in nine languages, Walt had been around the world—a few times—and what’s more, it seemed that the world passed through the Blue household. The Blues were members of an organization of international travelers who hosted and were hosted by other members. On any given day, visitors from Texas or Tanzania could be crashing at the “Blue Hotel.” Among the various dialects and quirks in the Blues’ exotic universe, Josh’s slurred speech, foot-dragging gait, and crooked arm were unremarkable.

It wasn’t until adolescence that Blue’s disability became an impediment. “Junior high was a real challenge,” says Blue’s friend, Nick Wilkie, who also has CP. “All of a sudden, we had different labels.” Wilkie was the one with Blue when they pulled the shopping-mall prank. The two grew up a mile away from each other; they’re the same age, went to the same public schools, and are still close friends. As Wilkie remembers, “We had the frustration of trying to breach those social barriers. It’s hard to stay upbeat in a situation like that.”

By all accounts, though, Blue never sulked—rather he always found a way to get along. In his first junior high English class, an assignment required each student to write an essay and read it in front of the class while being videotaped. Because CP deprived Blue of the ability to completely control his muscles, including those in his eyes, he has always had difficulty reading and writing, so he dictated his essay to a classmate who read it for him. Thanks in part to a teacher who encouraged students to do group-improv skits, Blue became comfortable in front of his classmates; by the time he reached high school he was making presentations, shrewdly incorporating a slide projector. He earned As in biology and chemistry, and he spoke French so fluently that he won his graduating class’ French Prize. It was Blue’s self-effacing sense of humor that eroded his classmates’ perceptions of him and earned him friends from all of the public high school social cliques. However, it wasn’t until he got to college that he truly felt comfortable in his skin and discovered just how seriously funny he is.

By selecting The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, Blue chose the perfect incubator for his talents. Founded in 1967, Evergreen is sometimes known as the “Harvard for Hippies.” Literally translated, its motto, Omnia Extares, is “reach out in all directions,” but it is more often and perhaps more accurately interpreted as “let it all hang out.” Notable “Greenie” alumni include avante-garde celebrities such as The Simpsons creator Matt Groening; comedian Michael Richards, Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer; and cartoonist Lynda Barry, the queen of the comic-strip underground. Describing Evergreen, Groening has said, “I went to…a fine little progressive school…state-funded, no grades, no hard courses. I highly recommend it to all self-disciplined creative weirdoes.”

Freshman year, Blue took a yearlong interdisciplinary study called “Sense of Place,” with classes on visual arts, botany, and creative writing. “Basically, we were a bunch of freshmen screwing off and smoking pot,” says Liz Kover, who took the same classes and became close friends with Blue. Evergreen’s nontraditional format is meant to encourage students to define their own paths by creating their own majors. Whereas Kover had a hard time adjusting to the nonexistent curriculum, Blue, she says, “was having the greatest time ever. He was just having fun and taking a bunch of different random classes. I think that’s why we made for such good friends. He kept me from taking things too seriously.”

When it came time for Blue to declare a major, it wasn’t much of a surprise to Kover, or to anyone else, that he cooked up “Comedy.” Blue went to the comedy clubs in and around Olympia, studying acts. Toward the end of his senior year he began taking the stage at open-mic nights. For his initial performances, Blue sat on a stool—he wanted audiences to listen to what he was saying, not get hung up on his appearance. But much of his material was about living with CP, and Blue realized that standing up improved his act. In no time, he adopted the pacing style of Chris Rock. For his final Evergreen project, he did an hour-long performance on campus entitled “It’s Not the Palsy, It’s the Pot.” As Kover puts it, the end of college was the beginning of Josh Blue’s comedy career.

Blue’s home is in the shadow of the Denver Police headquarters, set among the many storefronts of bail bondsmen. In the front yard there’s a billboard with an ad for that company that buys “ugly houses.” On the porch there’s a banged-up motorcycle helmet, several dead potted plants, and a glass aquarium filled with a foul-smelling muck. Yet the inside is a vibrant fantasyland.

Robust plants of all shapes and sizes fill the living room. Many of the larger ones are strung with twinkling white lights. The walls are covered with exotic knickknacks: a busted rifle, a machete in a leather sheath, a few masks—some conjuring up images of a carnival, some evoking African tribal ceremonies. And then there are the dozen or so of Blue’s own paintings of colorful and amorphous faces: a 3-foot by 2-foot portrait of a devil sporting horns and goatee; a blue humanoid, open-mouthed and apparently screaming in agony. The most captivating of the paintings is of a man who appears to be lying down, sleeping. From his head—from his subconscious—emanates a rainbow. “That one,” Blue tells me, “is called, ‘Monday Morning, One Minute Before the Alarm Goes Off.’” Being inside Blue’s home is like glimpsing Blue’s mind.

He spent the early part of this day with his business manager, planning future tours and house hunting. After winning Last Comic Standing, the funny business has become much more lucrative for Blue. His stand-up and his comedy DVD, Seven More Days in the Tank, have significantly bolstered his income, such that he can afford a big place in a booming neighborhood.

Blue moved to Denver in 2001, right after graduating Evergreen. His good friend Liz Kover was returning to her hometown of Denver and suggested he join her, check out the city. Kover’s father, who runs a business that employs developmentally disabled people, said he’d be glad to help Blue find a job. He, Liz, and another friend made the drab rental house their home. Blue started working during the day, and at night doing stand-up at clubs like Denver’s Mercury Cafe, eventually progressing to Comedy Works in Larimer Square, where he generated a national buzz that gave him the confidence to audition for Last Comic Standing.

Kover recently took a job with a marine biologist in Hawaii; now Blue’s third roommate is his pet snake, Doc Holliday. Plopping down on the couch, Blue points to a small, white cardboard box on his coffee table. The box contains a live mouse. “I call the snake Doc Holliday,” Blue says. “He’s got the quickest draw in the West. If I put that rat in the tank, it wouldn’t even hit the ground—he squeezes the hell out of it.” Blue tells me that once in a while his friends will come over with another snake, whereupon they put both creatures in the bathtub, gather around, drop another mouse in, and bet on which reptile will get the rodent.

His afternoon plans are a bit tamer: A couple of friends are coming over, and Blue is going to work on his routine. “We just hang out and make jokes and suggest ideas,” he says. “Instead of writing jokes, we’ll just talk about things. If someone laughs, it’s funny. And I’ll try to make it funnier. Like, ‘That’s good, but if I say this.…’”

I ask Blue if he thinks the comedian Margaret Cho was right when she said the best comedy comes from tragedy. He squirms in his seat at the end of the couch and looks away from me. The action could be an uncontrollable CP twinge to a stressful situation—after all, stress often induces the spasms—or it could be Blue’s own visceral reaction to my question. To an outsider it’s hard to tell when the CP is pulling Blue’s strings, and when Blue, a natural showman, is using his CP to pull the strings of others. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve never thought about it. Hold on.” Blue gets up, leaves the room, and comes back with a bag of cookies, a bag of weed, and a pipe. In what’s becoming an awkward silence, he takes a hit or two, and then exhales a response: “Like my experiences—I just don’t give a fuck. I just don’t. But if you look at my talking-slower thing, to me that’s funny, but think of how many millions of disabled people deal with that every day. That’s not funny. Having a disability definitely gives me a point of view not many other people have. I’m able to put it into a story so people can understand my perspective. Richard Pryor, he did it with race. Margaret Cho with Asians. And I look at myself as the one who put this [cerebral palsy issue] out there.”

There have been other funny-types with CP, like Geri Jewell, who appeared on the sitcom The Facts of Life, and the comedian Chris Fonseca, who’s done The Late Show and Baywatch. “But here’s the thing,” Blue says, the funnyman’s tone sounding uncharacteristically serious. “No one has had the platform like I have. I had everyone’s ears on Last Comic. Every week. I don’t think there’s been a disabled person who’s done that.”

Until Blue, America had not accepted a physically disabled person as a comedic star. During the last few years in the U.K., physically disabled comedians have been breaking big. There’s even a tour of physically disabled comedians akin to our Kings of Comedy and those blue-collar comedic rednecks; it’s called The Abnormally Funny People Show. Meanwhile, in the United States, physically disabled comedians have been operating in the margins, their craft studied and analyzed as if it were an experimental drug.

In October 2006, a three-person team of academics and educators published a research paper in the journal Disability & Society entitled, “The humorous construction of disability: ‘Stand-up’ comedians in the United States.” The way the researchers see it, there is a comedic genre of “disabling humor,” which denigrates the physically disabled, and “disability humor,” “in which disabled comedians…use self-deprecatory humor positively to dissolve and recreate disability. By shifting from victim to perpetrator, they undermine the power of people who laugh at them.” The researchers concluded that disability humor in the United States has been evolving in phases: “First, non-disabled people positioned disabled people as freaks and fools. Second, they circulated sick jokes, quadriplegic jokes and Helen Keller jokes. In the third phase, disabled people claimed humor as their own, laughing at society’s attitudes and barriers. Finally, in the fourth phase disability is just one more human variation in the landscape of diversity.”

Blue was breaking big on the comedic scene, winning Last Comic Standing just as this study was published. He never even knew it existed, but he didn’t need a research paper to tell him what he already knew: that if he could get The Josh Blue Show on the air it would be a good thing not just for him, but also for all physically disabled people. But, Blue now tells me in his living room, he didn’t even get the chance to make his pitch.

Instead, when he met with the NBC executives a few weeks earlier, they pitched him a show—an American version of the current British TV sitcom I’m With Stupid. “I watched it,” Blue tells me. “And I didn’t like it at all.” He grabs the Ziploc bag of cookies from the coffee table. “You want one?” It’s a polite gesture that seems to buy him time while he figures out how to discuss the NBC thing, which he’s still figuring out.

The British I’m With Stupid is about a guy named Paul with a particularly severe case of CP that has him in a wheelchair and requires him to reside in an assisted-living home. Paul’s a nice, smart, loser of a chap who’d love to have a friend; he finds one in a homeless man named Sheldon, a lovable dirty-rotten-scoundrel type who strikes a deal with Paul: Sheldon will be Paul’s friend if Paul will let Sheldon live with him. Much of the show’s plot is predicated on Sheldon’s instinct to take advantage of Paul, who is often the butt of Sheldon’s schemes. Paul, the wheelchair-bound CP sufferer, is Stupid. It’s a show that the researchers would likely categorize as “disabling humor.”

Blue certainly does. “It’s too crude. Too abrasive. The homeless guy wipes [Paul’s] ass,” he says, wrinkling his nose in disgust. In the meeting with the NBC muckety-mucks, the always resourceful Blue suggested a spin on the British version, an alternative that he believed would make the show less demeaning but still successful.

Blue’s vision of I’m With Stupid goes like this: “Yeah, it’s a group home setting, I’m in a wheelchair, but I don’t need to be. I just want the government funding. Then I get a homeless guy to do my bidding, but at the same time, he doesn’t know I don’t need to be in a wheelchair. When people aren’t around, I’m over here [Blue jumps up from his couch and pretends to be sneaking around his coffee table], getting cookies and shit. I’m getting up, taking a leak, and when somebody comes in I fall on the floor and say, ‘I don’t know what happened.’ The funny thing is, I’m not a normal person pretending to be disabled, I’m a disabled person pretending to be more disabled to get away with more shit. I sneak around at night, and I have a whole different kind of life.”

In Blue’s version of the show, just like in his stand-up, his disability is his advantage, his superpower, even; he is not some dependent and foolish stereotype. In the scripts that Blue sees in his mind’s eye, he would, as the researchers might put it, claim the humor as his own and laugh at society’s attitudes and barriers. The man with cerebral palsy, both on and off the set, would be the comical puppeteer pulling the strings of a world that can’t look beyond the surface. “First you think I’m the stupid one,” he says, rocking back and forth, laughing so hard he’s snorting. “Then you realize everyone else is.”

I ask Blue what response his idea got from the NBC folks. He turns his head away, as if having a spasm, and says only, “They liked it.” I ask him if there’s any talk of a timetable for getting the show into production. The optimism fades from his eyes. “No, not really. There’s a lot of business shit I don’t understand.” With that, he gets up from the couch and says he’s got some things he needs to do: stop over at Comedy Works, go to the bank, that sort of thing. I ask him if he needs a ride. Without thinking, I say, “It’s a long walk.” And Blue, without thinking, says, “No, I’m going to ride my bike.”

A couple of days after I meet with Blue at his home, the Hollywood trade paper Variety reports some news about I’m With Stupid. Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the brothers who have produced and directed movies like Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary, and The Ringer (about a “normal” kid who fakes being mentally handicapped to take part in the Special Olympics) are taking over the development of the TV show. The plot, as described in Variety, centers “on an unlucky guy who becomes friends with a man who uses a wheelchair—and moves into his home for the disabled.” Curiously, the article makes no mention of Josh Blue.

Wondering if the Variety report inadvertently omitted Blue’s name, I call the Farrelly brothers’ production offices in L.A. Bradley Thomas, an executive producer for the developing show, takes my call, and when I ask him if Josh Blue has been cast, Bradley responds, “Who’s Josh Blue?” I tell him Blue is the guy who just won Last Comic Standing. “Oh, that’s right. I’ve heard about him. Is he funny?” Thomas says he knows of no immediate plans to take a meeting with Blue.

When I call Peter Engel, an executive producer of Last Comic Standing, to see what he knows about Blue’s NBC development-deal, he tells me that he doesn’t think I’m With Stupid would be right for Blue. In fact, Engel, a creator of the long-running smash teen comedy Saved by the Bell, says, “I [don’t] feel the guy who has the disability should be the butt of the joke. I would love to have Josh for a development deal of my own, but for a year he belongs to the network. See, I would use Josh’s wisdom.”

Yet it’s hard to find the wisdom in Engel’s idea. The show Engel has in mind would be a cross between the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills, in which Nick Nolte, playing a homeless guy, moves in with and changes the life of a rich Beverly Hills family, and Alf, the ’80s sitcom, in which a Muppetlike alien moves in with and changes the life of an average American family. “Josh’s character,” Engel says, “would just be Josh: someone who is so outrageously funny and lovable. Like an Alf character. It would be about the impact he has on the family.… Josh reminds me a lot of Screech [the chronic butt-of-the-joke dork on Saved by The Bell]. “Whenever there would be a dead spot on Saved by The Bell, I would write in the margins of the script, ‘We need more Screech.’”

On one hand, Blue has the slim chance of being cast as the Stupid lovable sap with CP in an American rip-off of a British idea. Or he could play a normal American family’s lovable Muppet—the human equivalent of a cymbal-banging monkey. Standing on the stage the night he won Last Comic Standing, Blue never would have dreamed of such crippling possibilities.

Not that other people’s ignorance and stunted imaginations would have discouraged him. When he auditioned for that fourth season of Last Comic Standing, it wasn’t the first time he’d taken a shot at the show; he’d auditioned for an earlier season, to no avail. “I was like, obviously they’re not listening to what I’m saying; they’re looking at me and not at my personality. Maybe I wasn’t what they were looking for, or they weren’t ready. This time I don’t think they had a choice; they’d been hearing a lot about me from other people.” That’s the thing about Blue: He knows the world is loaded with slow people who need time to get his joke; he knows that while he kills on stage, it takes time to really change the way people think. He’s funny, and a little twisted, but he ain’t stupid.